So, Tom and I have been on many backpacking trips before, but this was the first one with Tom's friend, Michael - who we're pretty sure is an axe murderer. This is not based on any data, mind you, but more of a strong, "feels too right NOT to be true" sort of way. We did not mind, though, as one of Michael's friends assured us that it's been a long time since he struck, and we figured he'd be useful since he offered to knife any bears that became too threatening. It was only later that we came across a sign that assured us, "garbage kills bears". Man! If only we had known that at the outset we could have had a few granola bar wrappers at the ready and dispensed with Michael's services altogether.
My weekend really began Thursday night when Tom picked me up from the airport in a Miata with the top down. He had borrowed it from a friend for the week and after we had dropped my stuff off I got to take it out for a spin. Wooooo hooooo! I worked during the day on Friday (let's hear it for remote meeting software) which was ok because I got to break up the day with lunch with Tom's family: Tom Sr, Mary, Nancy, and new baby Elise. Tom Sr. treated us to Schlotsky's and we sat out on the patio catching up and enjoying the beautiful fall weather. I got to hold Elise for quite a while and she ended up falling asleep in my arms :). After Tom was done with work we went out to eat at a nice little restaurant with a ridiculous name: the Irregardless Cafe. The food and live music made up for it, though, so it was in good spirits that we headed to the Walnut Creek Amphitheater and joined maybe 15,000 other folks to hear The Avett Brothers in concert. Have I mentioned before how much fun they are as a band and how genuine their music is? It was just fantastic to be there.
Saturday morning found us picking up our axe murderer friend (whose spirits, we were happy to note, were high) and hitting the road. Michael is a ER nurse, so we whiled away the 5 hour drive hearing stories, talking healthcare and politics, sleeping, and arguing about whether it would be interesting to see a video of all of earth's history. Thankfully, the drive became increasingly beautiful as we entered the Smokies. Fall is just beginning here, and the weather was sunny and clear all weekend - which means we actually got to SEE the Smoky Mountains.
Our path, after a mile or two, joined up with the real live Appalachian Trail! I was pretty excited about this, as of course I've heard the stories and read enough of _A Walk in the Woods_ to get a sense that it's a pretty big deal. No one dubbed us with trail names in our short time there, bit we did run into others who had 'em. Our first night was spent in a shelter on the trail near Davenport Gap with a mother-daughter pair who went by the names Mama Monkey and Baby Monkey. They were able to share a few trail stories and give us the low-down on shelter etiquette. They also informed us that the crazy calling noises that were a continual backdrop for the entire weekend came from tree frogs. Good to know.
Michael had been up all night so was pretty shot, and the monkey pair wanted an early start, so Tom and I were the only ones to stay up playing Pass the Pigs. This is a game requiring incredible skill, strategy, and intelligence, as you will quickly see if you take a good look at the score sheet after the third game.
Sunday involved a LOT of hiking, with maybe 2000 feet of elevation gain, not counting the ups and downs in between.
Thankfully, there was good return for all that hard work: we hit the peak of Mt. Camerer at the peak of the day, and it was just beautiful. It was pretty much clear as far as the eye could see, and all of the hills were just... well... just beautiful. We dawdled around the Mt. Camerer lookout tower for maybe an hour, taking pictures, climbing around, and generally enjoying how smoky the Smokies *weren't* for the moment.
Then it was time to don our packs again and starting heading down to our second site for the weekend. It was a long way, so we were pretty shot by the time we finally rolled in. Site 37 is a big group site, so we got to know a few fellow campers (Kyle and Rich - air force dudes) as we set up and began cooking. We had fun joking about the folks in the next site over and chilling around the campfire they built.
After it got dark, we decided to try to find the stars. The tree canopy was heavy, but we figured that if we could find an opening it would be worth it because there would be so little light pollution. After walking around for maybe 20 minutes, we finally settled on jumping out to rocks in middle of the river near our tent. The trees still really blocked our view, but we DID see enough open sky to be able to see the main stars that make up Cygnus the Swan. Pretty stinkin' sweet.
For the second night in a row, our axe murderer was too tired to contemplate any deed more dastardly than simply going straight to sleep, but what with the beautiful rushing river sounds and the long hike, I don't think either of us was all that far behind him.
Our trip wrapped up on a lovely note. Another fellow camper, Will, accompanied us on the trail along the river as we headed back to the car. And Will had been camping/hiking here before. He pointed out Mouse Falls, which we would have missed completely had we been on our own. Better yet, he knew of this great swimming hole that was on our way. Tom and I couldn't resist. So we ended up plunging in, splashing around, and eventually working up our courage to climbing up the rocks taking a huge jump into the swirling water. Ahhhh! That alone turned the entire weekend trip from a 9 to a 10.
By the time we returned to the car, Michael must have decided we weren't worth the trouble, for he showed no more evidence of his violent pastime than he had for any earlier part of the trip. Good thing we knew who he really is, for we never would have figured it out from his behavior on the trip itself.
We got back in time to drop Michael off in time for work, grab dinner at an Indian restaurant, and get me to the airport (unshowered!) in time for my flight. I wasn't ready to leave!